‘A wonderful day’ for Grand Rapids: scholarship promise for students citywide

Officials approve full GRCC scholarships for graduates of public, private schools in city

Innovation Central High School senior Pedro Gutierrez talks about his excitement at being able to attend Grand Rapids Community College for free, thanks to the new Grand Rapids Promise scholarship program

On a historic day for the city of Grand Rapids and its schools, Pedro Gutierrez and Hedy Cardenas suddenly felt more confident about their futures.

The Innovation Central High School seniors spoke of how much a full scholarship to Grand Rapids Community College means to them, at a press conference Monday formally announcing the launch of the Grand Rapids Promise. All students who live in the city of Grand Rapids and graduate from one of its 22 public, private and charter high schools will be eligible for two-year scholarships to GRCC, under a plan approved by the Grand Rapids Promise Zone Authority board of directors Monday.

“It’s a dream I always wanted,” Pedro said of his desire to own a construction company, now burnished by being able to earn an associate degree in business at GRCC. “I (get) to support my dad and my family. I just want to make them proud.”

Pedro said he wasn’t planning to attend college because it’s too expensive. Now, he said, “Being able to hear this that I’m not even going to have to pay, and help my family, it’s something nice. It’s something great to hear.”

Hedy said the scholarship makes college affordable for her family, noting she’ll be the first to attend. She plans to earn a degree in dental hygiene.

“I was trying to have two jobs and go to college, and it was just like a stress coming to me,” Hedy said. The scholarship, she said, “just took out a big weight.”

They spoke after the 11-member GRPZA board approved a Development Plan, now to be approved by the Michigan Department of Treasury.  It calls for the scholarship to fund up to 60 credit hours at GRCC, covering tuition, books and fees after state and federal need-based grants, enabling students to earn a degree or certificate. The awards will be available beginning with this spring’s graduating class, to students who live in the city of Grand Rapids and who graduate from one of 10 GRPS high schools or one of a dozen parochial, Christian and charter high schools.

The award amounts will be prorated according to length of time a student resides in the city and attends an eligible school: those who attend from grades 9-12 and 10-12 would receive 100%; grades 11-12, 50%; and grade 12 only, no award.

Related Story: Challenge Scholars near the finish line – Seniors Leslie Torres and Francisco McKnight are among the first class of Union High Challenge Scholars, assured of four-year college scholarships from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation…

‘A Game-changer’ 
Establishing the Promise Scholarship is an important step not just for students and Grand Rapids but “for the entire region,” said Teresa Weatherall Neal, former GRPS superintendent and chair of the GRPZA board.

“It really is a game-changer,” Neal said. “Young people will benefit from this, but this is really about changing the landscape for our future workforce.”

GRCC President Bill Pink went a step further, saying the program “will be life-changing for so many students and their families.” He announced the college will provide $500,000 in scholarships and will administer the program on behalf of the GRPZA. “We are removing cost as a barrier to getting an education,” he said.

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, a member of the GRPZA board, said the Promise ensures access to affordable college for “every single young person” in the city, and will provide them with skills badly needed by local employers.

“Wherever their heart takes them, we want to stand alongside them on that journey,” Bliss said. “Today is a wonderful day for our community, and truly for all those who call Grand Rapids home.”

Rosalynn Bliss, Grand Rapids mayor and Promise Zone Authority board member, speaks of ‘a wonderful day’ at the launch of the Grand Rapids Promise Zone

Funding Must Climb ‘a Steep Hill’

The plan, drafted by Kennari Consulting, projects over 1,300 graduates will be eligible for the scholarship this spring, and that more than 260 of them will enroll in GRCC. Projected total cost for the first year is almost $950,000, which must be covered by community fundraising. Beginning in its third year the fund will receive dollars captured by the growth of its six-mill state education property tax. The plan specifies a fundraising goal of $2.9 million for the first five years.

Neal said she’s confident the community will come up with the necessary funds.

“Although this is a steep hill for us to climb to raise the money, I believe this is so important and people will see the value in it. it is my hope we can all come together and make this lift.”

In addition, the Authority has “a commitment from donors to ensure that the local fundraising portion is covered within the first five years,” guaranteeing that dollars will be there for scholarships while fundraising continues, said GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt. By year four the tax-captured funds will fully fund the scholarships, he said.

The GRPZA board is also looking ahead at ways to support students, such as college-career coordinators in the high schools, and wants to provide additional supports to help them complete their college programs, Helmholdt said. GRCC also will reach out to students and families to help them get started and continue be successful once enrolled, Pink said.

Authority board members have expressed a desire to eventually expand the program beyond GRCC, possibly including four-year scholarships, depending on the amount of funds and tax captures raised over the next five to 10 years, Helmholdt added.

Besides the 10 high schools of GRPS, eligible students come from other city schools including Grand Rapids Catholic Central High School, Grand Rapids Christian High School, West Catholic High School, Grand Rapids Covenant House Academy and Hope Academy of West Michigan. Established in 2018, the Grand Rapids Promise Zone is one of 15 designated Promise Zones in Michigan, beginning with the Kalamazoo Promise in 2005.

Neal said the Promise Zone Authority will collaborate with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, which is providing Challenge Scholars scholarships to Union High School graduates, to decide “how we marry the two … and maximize what will happen for children.”

For more information on the Grand Rapids Promise and to ask questions, go to grpromisezone.com or call 616-234-4361.

From left, Innovation Central High School seniors Hedy Cardenas and Pedro Gutierrez talk with Omar Cuevas, Grand Rapids Promise Zone Authority board member and a vice president of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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